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When The New York Times wanted to know what brand of shoe the Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi hurled at former president Bush, the paper of record contacted Steven Taffel. Taffel’s response, detailed and witty, was exactly what one would expect from the owner of Leffot, a cult boutique that traffics in made-to-measure shoes from Alfred Sargent, Aubercy, Corthay and Edward Green, among others. “The shoes couldn’t have been very well balanced—I mean, the journalist did miss the target twice,” he told the Times. “Imagine the damage a pair of Alden cordovan brogues would have caused with their double-leather soles, storm welting and approximately five pounds of horsehide, made in the U.S.A. Now that would’ve hurt.”
Alden just happens to be one of the mid-level brands Taffel stocks at Leffot, his tiny shop in New York’s West Village. Before Leffot opened, in 2008, American dandies had to travel to London or Paris, or seek out those domestic craftsmen who create bench-made brogues, oxfords and boots. Though Leffot doesn’t offer pure bespoke shoes, which are created using a wooden model of the customer’s foot, Taffel personally fits each client, then advises him on whether to buy a stock pair or, for $75 to $150 extra, order a customized pair.
Leffot feels more like an art gallery than a shop. There are no shelves; instead, the tightly edited selection of shoes sits atop a long blond-wood dining table running down the middle of the space. Taffel curates his merchandise using a simple set of criteria. “The first principle: Only carry shoes crafted by shoemakers,” he says. “Secondly, we want to have different styles. Our American shoes are very different from our French shoes, which are very different from our English shoes.”
Men, he believes, typically feel overwhelmed when given too many choices in a retail situation, so he scours the world for the best representatives of shoe types at various price points. You want a soft camp moccasin? Taffel carries Quoddy, a century-old Maine-based operation. If you want a thick-as-a-brick black English calfskin oxford, he has one from Alfred Sargent, a 196-year-old family firm in Northampton, England.
Taffel has also found that men respond to the lore of a specific brand. Guys are more likely to pony up $1,200 for a custom pair of sleek two-eyelet lace-ups from Corthay if they know that Pierre Corthay trained at John Lobb and ran Berluti’s atelier before striking out on his own in 1990. Corthays may be fine for grand cru–swilling dandies, but Leffot was never meant to be elitist. (The store’s name is a backward spelling of Taffel’s shtetl-fleeing grandfather’s last name, Toffel, which an immigration officer changed to Taffel upon the grandfather’s arrival in the States.) And Leffot’s more moderately priced entries have become a gateway drug of sorts for a younger hipster crowd. Drawn to the idea of American craftsmanship, they’re into buying Wolverine boots and Alden suede brogues.
Unlike fashion brands, which vigorously negotiate for their own shelf space in department stores, Leffot’s artisanal suppliers seem to view the store’s table as the shoe world’s collegial yet competitive equivalent of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Or as Ron Rider, a Virginia-based producer of elegant dress boots, puts it, “Where else can you find structured Corthay dress shoes next to Alden’s robust, casual leather boots, with shell cordovan chukkas from Rider Boot Company in between? Nowhere but Leffot. Most buyers judge a line on where it ‘fits.’ Steven goes by what’s interesting.”
Once customers fall under the spell, they seldom shop elsewhere. One such client is Dr. John Walton, a radiologist in Tulsa who started buying shoes from Leffot in 2008. Walton has wide feet and used to wear Ferragamos. He read about Leffot on the Sartorialist blog and called Taffel. “After I described my foot shape, Steven sent me two pairs of Corthays and told me if they didn’t fit, I could send them back. They both fit.” To date, Tulsa’s best-shod radiologist has purchased 30 pairs from Leffot.
Being able to nail the fit over the phone speaks to Taffel’s long history with footwear. While an undergraduate at Oakland College, near Detroit, he worked at Fashion Shoes in a local mall. “It was a family store selling moderately priced shoes, and there were a lot of older guys in the business who taught me how to measure feet,” he says. After college he worked for Bottega Veneta and Nordstrom in Los Angeles before taking a job with Prada in New York in the late 1990s. Taffel spent ten years at Prada, first in the shoe department and then in corporate inventory control. In 2007 he decided to open a shop of his own. He first considered opening a traditional men’s clothing store but changed his mind while reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. “A character was talking about his Edward Green shoes, and how on the box it read ‘Edward Green: Shoemakers to the Few,’” he recalls. A light bulb went on.
To underscore his emphasis on heritage and craftsmanship, Taffel created a coat of arms for the store featuring rabbits in livery and a Latin motto: Numquam jactate. The maxim is sound advice for anyone considering making his feet a conversation piece. “It means ‘never brag,’” Taffel says, adding a bit of wise fashion counsel: “Shoes should be stylish but never ostentatious.”
Leffot is located at 10 Christopher St. For more details, call 212-989-4577 or go to leffot.com.